The 100 students at Arise Academy Charter High School in Philadelphia received vouchers Wednesday for new winter coats and two pairs of sneakers from Villa clothing stores.

"Best Christmas ever," said senior Terrell Randolph, 18.

But the best story Wednesday was not the early presents. It was the students themselves, and their school, the only one in the country devoted to children in foster care, its leaders say.

"This is a big change," Randolph said of the school. "It opens my mind to see people really care. I've been through ups and downs and seen it all. I was in and out of foster care since I was 12."

Some Arise students are still homeless or living in shelters, and most are under Department of Human Services supervision.

The heart and soul of the West Oak Lane school is Mark Solomon, 75, retired from the investment firm he founded, CMS. He has been on the board since the school opened five years ago. He comes to the building every day, and often writes letters about the students' lives to 300 supporters.

One last week began, "Bashira is a beautiful young lady whose life is one about which they could make a movie, the only trouble being that no one could sit through it."

Solomon owns the Center City building where Villa has its business offices. He asked the company's vice president of marketing, Patrick Walsh, to visit, and soon the gift was made.

"These kids don't have anyone," Solomon said. "They're out there totally on their own."

Solomon recently asked a friend to clean out her closets and donate the coats to Arise. On Tuesday, he saw that Donna Varner, 19, was shivering, and recalled that she never came to school with a winter coat. So he gave her a new coat.

Varner returned an hour later and handed Solomon $16.40 found in a pocket.

"If you had kept it, who would have known?" he asked her.

"I would have," she said.

He kept the money. She kept the coat.

"He's like Arise's keeper," Varner said. "No matter what it may be. I have two kids. He got my son Pampers. I feel like Mr. Solomon is the father I never had. Mine is locked up."

The school, at 2116 E. Haines St., is at risk of losing its charter because its academic performance has not met state standards. But Roberta Trombetta, the school's new CEO, is turning the place around, Solomon and others say.

"Roberta is a star," said Sarah Martinez-Helfman, executive director of the Eagles Youth Partnership, who came to Wednesday's Christmas party. "She had a student come to her office on Monday with a headache. She found out he hadn't eaten since Friday."

Trombetta has a closet full of food and fed him.

She has rescued students from the street when they have called after midnight. She delivered one student a bed from her own basement.

"Without a place like this, there is nowhere for these kids to go," said Martinez-Helfman.

Tyhira Freeman, 18, was happy about the sneakers and coat but even happier about the acceptance letter she was carrying from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

"I'm the first one in the school this year to get accepted into college," she said.

She is the first person in her family ever to apply. She wants to study culinary arts and business.

"I like food, and I'm really bossy," she explained.

Speaking of food, volunteers and teachers prepared a homemade luncheon feast: meatballs, roasted chicken, macaroni and cheese, salad, cookies, and navel oranges.

Trombetta got word from the buffet line.

"You're not eating enough fruit," she announced. "So eat fruit!"

mvitez@phillynews.com 215-854-5639 @michaelvitez